Morgan Sette*

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The Reinvention of Tkay Maidza

The unpredictable Tkay Maidza proves she can turn her ambitious ideas into reality.

Tkay Maidza weaves through racks of pre-loved clothing until her acrylic stiletto nails instinctively stop. She pulls out a pair of baggy chocolate brown suede pants and says they’re exactly what she’s been looking for. Three sizes too big for her lithe waist, she fastens them with her belt when she puts them on. The pants immediately look like they were made with her in mind.

In person, Maidza has the gentleness of a fawn. We meet at SWOP in Sydney’s Newtown, near the end of her year of reinvention. Her EP Last Year Was Weird, Vol.2 arrived last August, more than two years after Vol.1, and marked a giant platform-booted leap away from the power-pop sound on her 2016-released debut record, TKAY. Maidza was 17 and just out of high school when her single “Carry On” featuring Killer Mike was released and she had nabbed a BET Award nomination.

Her ingénue years had seen her make inroads to become both a professional tennis star (she ranked in the national Top 200) and an architect. She studied architecture for one year before the knocks of global record labels became too loud to ignore. They had streamed her debut single “Brontosaurus” on triple j Unearthed and watched closely as it pinballed into DJ sets across the world. Now, after close to a year of introspection and desktop research of the impetuses of the current global unrest, she’s using the COVID-19 pandemic to take stock of herself.

“I’m starting to not just look at how things affect me, but how what I do affects others. And you know, trying to come up with a consensus of what to do then,” she says. “[…] Sometimes you have to look around to understand where you need to stand, where you need to sit in the world, just in general as a person.”

Maidza has a likeable manner and a voice that could calm an ocean. She talks just as a woman of her age would talk, one that is assured and holds to account the keyboard warriors who display their ignorance. The ones who aren’t putting in the same self-work that she is. This year especially, as global Black Lives Matter protests pushed the movement further into public consciousness, Maidza found herself as the chosen groundskeeper for her non-POC friends.

“It’s not my job,” she asserts. “It’s really exhausting. […] It’s like, why is it my job to educate you when there are literally books online – you just weren’t taught by your teachers.”

Image of Tkay Maidza

Tkay Maidza has been labelled a ‘visionary’. (Photo by Morgan Sette)

Late last year, Maidza visited Sydney for a few studio sessions when she experienced the type of casual racism that often goes unnoticed among those with privilege.

“I literally went outside, and some old man just looked at me and he walked closer, and he was like, ‘Are you going to break dance?’” Maidza recounts. “I was like, you literally could have just, you could have just looked at me and let me continue to walk. But you decided to say something.

[…] I was like wow, I literally stopped to listen to you say that. And I’m just going to keep walking. I have no energy for this right now.”

Growing up, Maidza took it upon herself to learn about other people’s cultures. Born Takudzwa Victoria Rosa Maidza in Zimbabwe, and raised in Australia in Perth, then Kalgoorlie, Whyalla, and then suburban Adelaide, Maidza was one of two African students at her high school. “I found that I would just mould myself into trying to fit in to where I was at the time.” But with metallurgist parents who valued growth and discipline, Maidza rarely socialised as a child. Between soccer practise, gymnastics, drawing lessons, and her school studies, there was hardly time for it.

“The goal was really just to study, get good grades, and just become this ultimate human that a lot of ethnic parents hope for their children to be.”

You can see that work ethic in all that Maidza does. It’s in the clear structure of her days when she’s at her top-floor apartment space above her parent’s Adelaide home (a family compromise to keep her close): emails, exercise, followed by afternoons dedicated to creation. It’s in her stage show, where every moment has been devised to offer context into who she is as an artist, including her hiring of live music director Joel Farland at the end of 2019.

“I feel a strong sense of self now,” she says. “I think before I was in that mind space of, okay, the goal is to release a song and then get to the next stage. It was very goal orientated. […] But I think in music you have to think about how things make you feel, to make a decision. If you don’t feel that it’s great then there’s going to be a block somewhere and I think that was my problem.”

In 2017, Tkay Maidza’s management contract was up and she chose not to renew. On the label side, she became a free agent in the US and UK for two years. She now has four managers, two are based in Australia and two are in the US, and just before the first Last Year Was Weird EP was released in 2018, she started conversations with UK indie label juggernaut 4AD, inking the deal in time for Vol.2.

“I think you should surround yourself with people that know your path.”

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Maidza is in the midst of designing her own Last Year Was Weird fashion line. (Photo by Morgan Sette)

Tkay Maidza as an artist, is a project; one that is unlike many of her contemporaries working in the electronic music space right now. In fact, comparisons to other musicians don’t make any sense, there’s no blueprint for what Maidza is doing, in the way she’s doing it. If your sound indicates which scene you belong to, then Tkay might very well be inventing her own.

“You can’t push me into pop spaces,” she says.

“You can’t push me into pop spaces.”

Seated at a cafe in Newtown, Tkay Maidza looks every bit music-video ready in baggy blue jeans and a loose white halter neck crop, but she’s not your local Instagram influencer. You see, Maidza the person and Maidza the artist are one and the same. The thick false lashes that fringe her velvet brown eyes, the nails, hairstyle, and art-pop outfits she wears on stage are the same outfits she wears to catch up with her girlfriends. There is no stage persona, it’s just that the stage is her clear opportunity to showcase who she is.

Lillian “Flex Mami” Ahenkan, the presenter, podcast host, influencer, and DJ, has toured globally with Maidza. She says Maidza is yet to be ‘seen’ by the masses.

“She’s a visionary,” Flex Mami says. “She’s got so much range. She’s not just a girl who raps and sometimes sings. There’s so much thought behind all of it and I wish people could see that for what it is.”

Maidza says she doesn’t feel understood in Australia, musically or culturally. When her fair-weather music fans read the name Tkay Maidza it conjures up a certain image in their minds: house music with festival-ready eccentricity delivered from a butter-wouldn’t-melt teenager with long straight hair and a middle part. But that was five years ago. “I’m still at that point where people have started realising I am a little bit more soulful than I was,” Maidza observes.

“I’m still at that point where people have started realising I am a little bit more soulful.”

The industry itself has evolved in the last few years, entire sectors have been eradicated and new ones have become crucial for growth. And yet, some expect the bottled ideal of a teenage artist in their launch phase to remain unchanged. For Maidza, an existential crisis, a year of therapy, and the team-up with LA-based producer Dan Farber, means not only has she grown out of the shell she was in when she wrote “Simulation”, she’s revolting against it.

“I don’t fully identify with it [the TKAY album] as much anymore,” she says. “And it was kind of that whole idea of just realising maybe I need to say more. I can’t just go to sessions and write songs, because I know I’m good at writing songs. I feel like there just has to be more. I need to stand for something.”

Tkay Maidza took a risk with the second volume of her Last Year Was Weird reintroduction. With witty streetscape singles like “Shook” and “Awake” featuring Baltimore rapper JPEGMafia, and an ARIA Award nomination to boot, it’s a straight-up statement.

The extravagant third-culture energy of Last Year Was Weird Vol.2 showed zero signs of its struggled birth. The EP is like a noir arthouse film dressed in fluffy phat pants at a Tyler, The Creator concert. The entirety of Tkay Maidza is on show as it proffers her soulful singing range and biting rap flow in the space of 10 seconds. Its release last August may have come as a departure for some, but those who listened closely to Vol.1 – namely the slow jam “White Rose” – heard hints of what was to come. Strategic in nature but with magic-hour abstractness, Vol.2 was the punch that follows the one-two.

“I just didn’t feel like I was ready to do another album. And if I did want to realign, you can’t just drop an album,” Maidza explains. “[…] I feel that [Vol.1] was the project where everyone was like, ‘What is she doing?’ And then when I came back with the second one, everyone’s like, ‘Oh okay cool’. You need the lead up.”

The question so heavily tied to Tkay Maidza is no longer ‘What is she doing?’, but more ‘How is she doing it?’. As Maidza drip feeds Vol.3 and starts making inroads on her second album, again working with Dan Farber in LA, she’s also in the midst of designing her own Last Year Was Weird fashion line. The goal is to create a “cultural hub” which houses her own brand alongside other labels. “The mood board for a lot of my stuff is future nostalgia,” she says. It’s not an unforeseen venture either. Maidza hosted pop-ups in Sydney and Melbourne in 2019 where she sold exclusive merch items and performed her ARIA-nominated single “Awake”.

Moreover, Maidza’s partnerships include a multi-project team-up with designer Stella McCartney, sync deals with brands like Coca-Cola and French Champagne producer GH Mumm, and the inclusion in Google’s YouTube BlackVoices Fund where the dedicated partner support saw her video for “You Sad” played with all its flower power brilliance across billboards in Downtown LA and New York’s Times Square in January.

“The common misconception is that I’m not as deep as I am,” Maidza notes. “Because I’m very colourful. A lot of it is image-based as well. So I can be confused as, ‘Oh it’s an Instagram influencer making music’ kind of vibe.”

“The common misconception is that I’m not as deep as I am.”

Maidza is full of surprises. The conversation turns to Instagram as a way to communicate the amalgamation of all her dimensions. She casually diverts to say the app sparked a now six-year friendship with a fan. “We ended up just being best friends,” she smiles with her eyes. “When I was in Adelaide we would drive out of town and just have chocolate by the lake and stuff. And she would help me take pictures; we’d just hang out.”

Tkay Maidza strikes you as a person who is fundamentally philosophical, a woman in tune with her responsibilities and the impact she wants to make. Bridging the gap for fans between her music and her own personal ethos is no easy task, and not one she’s taking lightly either. But she has hard-lined stances in place to make sure she stays on track. One of those is a promise to never feed into the trappings of opulence.

“I came from not having a lot and the reason why I’m probably here is because I like to dream big,” she says. “I like to picture me catapulting to this other sphere. […] If I lived in a really nice place and had all these expensive things, I probably wouldn’t want to dream.”